Article archive 2017: How to do good work – Interview by Mark Sinclair

Studio Thomas.Matthews has put sustainability at the heart of its design practice and working environment. Mark Sinclair talks to its co-founder Sophie Thomas about creativity as an agent for change.

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inside our material sample drawers

Communication design studio Thomas.Matthews will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and mark a new chapter in its life that started to take shape in 2016. Last summer, the London studio moved into a new space in The Clove Building, tucked behind the Design Museum’s previous home on the River Thames.

The space is still very much a blank canvas, yet indications of what TM want the place to feel like are already visible – and founding director Sophie Thomas is keen to see how the environment will help the team to create great work. Sustainability has been at the heart of TM’s design projects since 1998 and the approach has filtered through into the new building: there’s a well-stocked research library, a workshop and materials library and evidence of ‘re-use’ throughout the main space – an old lightbox has been reconfigured as a lunch table, for example. Environmental and social integrity are key to TM’s work and its definition of what constitutes ‘good design’ is displayed on the studio business cards: “Appropriate, sustainable and beautiful”. Its approach to projects for clients ranging from NGOs and charities to museums and cultural institutions has also aimed to offer new solutions and change old habits through creativity. After 20 years, this is still a challenging area to work in but, as Thomas explains, it can be an extremely rewarding one, too.

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The manifestation on our glass office panels are a collection of technical words from all the different brands.

Creative Review: Since 2010, TM has been part of an employee benefit trust called the Useful Simple Trust. The five companies in it, based here in The Clove Building, are owned by over 80 beneficiary employees. Can you tell me about how that structure works and what it gives you
as a studio?

Sophie Thomas: It’s like the John Lewis model but different  because we don’t have shares. We have split profits, we have a holding company – Useful Simple Ltd – a trustee board and an operations team running the day-to-day and then there are the beneficiaries. It gives us two things: the opportunity to work with some really interesting people – I can go and have a conversation with someone working in the sustainability consultancy team, they can do life-cycle analyses [and] we can joint pitch on jobs. It [also] makes us part of a bigger thing, so we have more friends, we have more fun – and we have bigger opportunities for spaces like this. And we have collective support teams, so there’s a safety net.

CR: Was the recent move an opportunity to start again with an office space? How do you make sustainability integral to the office?

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ST: [We] really push the sustainability side of things, even [in] the way we run the office [and] the kind of materials we use. It’s quite healthy, challenging [you to think] about what’s good and what isn’t. It comes down to budget as well, but in the end a lot of it was about re-use and re-appropriation and knowing what we’ve got. And there’s a good lesson in that – we had stuff in storage from past trade shows, tables [that we use] in the library. These are our old chairs, they do the job, but that’s the interesting thing: the aspiration to change them or adapt them? You need to decide what you can live with and what people [will] perceive when they come in. It’s quite a raw studio at the moment, it needs its personality put in, but the way you use a studio is very different to the way you ‘think’ you’ll use it.

CR: You talked to your staff about what they would need from the environment – what conclusions did you draw from this?

ST: We had a whole survey done [that] looked at how people work in the best way and how they use their time within the day. Effectively, it’s looking at when are you working best, how do you optimise time, do you actually need to be sitting at a desk? It was really interesting – surprising in the sense that we come and work at desks! Which is why we have spaces like the library and the workshop – the document helped us to understand what kinds of work requirements people needed, it also justifies the percentage of ‘hot desks’ we needed, and how people worked at home. We also spent a long time with the bbeneficiaries – looking at what kind of spaces we needed.

CR: Last year you released your own project, Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, and have said that you still like to keep your hand in with the creative work at TM. Would you say you encourage your staff to develop creative interests outside of the studio?

ST: When you start a [design] business, you do a degree in design but actually the further on you get with the business, the more ‘business’ you become. The last four years I’ve done two and a half days at TM and the same at the Royal Society of Arts; and there I was very much involved in developing workshops and ideas, getting creative people to think differently. And after that I got to a point where I really wanted to get ink under my fingernails again. I think it’s really important [to encourage it]. Two of our staff, Tamara Piña and Jack Bardwell, did a self-initiated exhibition in Spain, for example –

CR: You launched The Great Recovery initiative in 2012. Can you tell me about that and how it relates to the idea of the ‘circular economy’ and current thinking in design that’s environmentally-conscious?

Imagine that anyone who writes a brief for a designer just puts in a sentence that says, ‘Consider the second and third life of this product’. You would have a completely different approach

ST: We’re currently in this really strange position where – and it’s a norm of [the] global economy – that we take stuff out of the ground, our raw material, and we make it and process it into a product, assemble it, brand it, sell it to people – they use it and they chuck it away. It’s a linear process. So what has been discussed and investigated is how you can join those two ends back together – you’re effectively keeping the value in the loop in society for as long as possible. I always go on about toothbrushes, there’s a rucksack of material, about a kilo that goes into making a disposable toothbrush and the majority of that is lost in the production and the manufacturing. So you can lose about 90 per cent of the material weight, before it even gets into the shop. We have to start thinking about how design can help, because design is part of the problem. A lot of recycling at the moment is about crushing [something] and making it into road aggregate, for example, but we’re talking about making sure that value gets back in and becomes another raw material for designers to use again.

Imagine that anyone who writes a brief for a designer just put a sentence in that said, ‘Consider the second and third life of this product’. You would have a completely different approach to stuff. A ‘third life’ means that you actually have to think about [how] you keep that value for the second time. [If something goes] straight to aggregate or is merged with a resin, then you’ve lost it. But if you pull up the value a second time, subsequently you can go into third, fourth and fifth life, it’s a very different way of thinking. But it’s really interesting for the designers to think like that – you start to really understand the lifecycle of your product. The real, whole life of it. And then when things like technology come in – ‘intelligent’ products that tell you that they’re not failing yet, but that they’re going to fail soon, like a lightbulb – [this] means you can get to it, fix it, or change the parts before it fails and that will extend its life. Things like that are already starting to happen.

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Poetry on the recycling bins

CR: Are you working on anything outside of the studio that responds to this thinking?

ST: Something I’ve always wanted to do is be a ‘garbologist’ – a waste anthropologist. There were some brilliant studies done in the US in the 1970s-90s by William Rathje who, with his students, would do crawls of landfill sites in America to work out how the processes were working and to see what habits [were emerging]. They found that things don’t degrade in landfills sites; they’re not hot enough, they’re not exposed to oxygen. So this idea that we’re throwing things away, we’re not – we’re burying historical layers of very bad habits. So I’m fascinated with it. My friend challenged me … to record all the things I buy that I don’t necessarily need. I’m recording the ‘need’ versus the ‘want’ and also things like how much knowledge I have about [a product], what I think is in it, where I think it was made, how long it will last – what I do with it afterwards…. I don’t know what I’m doing with it yet, but if you can have something that will help you understand need and want, what has gone into a product and how much material is behind it, more often than not you’ll say you don’t really need it.

This article was first published in Creative Review, February 2017.

Article archive 2017: What am I supposed to do with this cup?

We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why?

A fraction of the 5,000 cups per minute that we consume in the UK.

The quote on the side of our meeting room coffee jug says it all. Coffee first. Schemes later. I don’t think our studio is unique in its love for coffee. I imagine that coffee serves as one of our industry’s primary fuels. Many a late night is sustained by shots of espresso, making sure we hit that deadline. The question is, at what cost?

Cups after collection and baling (many of the waste cups are pre-consumer waste e.g. printing rejects).

In the early years of the Thomas.Matthews studio we did a quick count of cups of coffee consumed in a day. I am particularly keen on the substance and am often avoided by fellow workers until I have had my first sip. However, even I was surprised by the sheer quantity. I averaged out at seven cups a day. Four of these were bought from the local café, equating to £9 a day, £45 a week – £2,025 a year spent on coffee. An expensive habit of which I am not alone. Britons spent £7.9bn in coffee shops in 2015, it’s a growing market. In 1999 it was thought that the coffee market was at saturation, but it has grown sevenfold and is set on path that could see it double over the next decade.

Cups are shredded and ready for the separation of the paper from the polythene liner.

“Britain is becoming a nation of coffee connoisseurs. The thirst and the desire to have better quality coffee is growing (thank god, there is nothing worse than a bad, weak, coffee) ((Jeffrey Young, MD of the Allegra Group))” So, it is confirmed – coffee is big business. Alongside the operations of supplying coffee to the masses is the fact that in the UK, unlike Italy, we love to drink on the run, and a hot beverage needs a specific container to transport it in.

The disposable coffee cup has seen a lot of press recently, and well it should have. The UK produces 5 billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering 7 million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5000 a minute). However, less than 1% of this waste stream makes it to the recycling plant, even though the main material – over 70% – is high quality virgin paper. The clue to the problem is in the misleading name; disposable. This object suffers from the same identity issue as a lot of packaging; once it has fulfilled its job of keeping food fresh or cold, hot or clean, delivered to your door or desk, it then loses its value, and in-fact takes on a negative value, being annoying to get rid of. What do I do with this sticky, smelly thing now? Where are the bins? Which bin should it go in?

But we are wrong to think there is no value in a used cup once the coffee has been drunk. The engineering behind the take-away cup is pretty extraordinary. There are two curves to deal when creating the cup shape. This demands a lot from the cellulose of the paper that a recycled stock with shorter fibres could probably not cope with. You need a virgin material for it not to fail, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees a year to fuel Britain’s coffee habit. Then, you have the bonded polythene layer inside to make it waterproof. This bond is so strong that it is very hard to pull apart the two materials. And so, the recoverability becomes economically unviable for the majority of recycling facilities to do it.

Laminate packaging that has been separated for reprocessing. The polymer and aluminium is currently not recycled.

With 5,000 a minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem? We do not have Individual Producer Responsibility for cups. Once they are empty of coffee and become waste they is our problem to dispose of. We often put them in the recycling bin, hoping they will get recovered but only 1% does. They are either incinerated where we recover their calorific value in energy from waste plants, or they are buried in landfill where they give off methane whilst they slowly degrade. There is a little research on how long it actually takes for a disposable cup to break down in the environment on its own. The quality of the paper could see it take at least two years to start decomposing with the polythene taking up to 30 years.

Paper and polymer mixed pulp

So what can be done? For me, design will be the key, not just in the cup design, but in systems and materials spec too. Solutions are surfacing. In business, consortiums like Simply Cups have been working on building a strong collaborative cohort of companies that brings together every part of the supply chain and beyond; retail to producer, user to collector, paper mill to reprocessor , waste manager and collection service provider. What comes out from the collected cups that are sorted, baled, shredded, separated and cleaned is a high quality paper pulp suitable for luxury packaging and card which is high in value.

Shredded paper and pulp still has value.

The interesting thing about this model is the scope there is to expand out, both in R&D and new business models. Companies are now working with them; like the coffee roasters who close the loop by offering a complete service of bean delivery and spent ground collection (that they use to fuel their roasting machines, which roast your beans for your next order). Simply Cups have also been building partnerships looking at designing out the polythene layer altogether in order to create a cup that any recycler will want to collect because they can easily reprocess it.

More obviously there are designers and businesses who have replaced the disposable cup altogether. Keep Cups are one of these barista size cups. They have pretty much the same thermal properties as a paper cup (ie. Good for 10 minutes) which is long enough for me, and are durable and reusable with added feel good factor.

Processed and usable paper pulp

What about levies and tax options? A few years back, Simply Cups mentioned that if we could add 5p onto the price of every coffee drunk from a disposable cup we would be able to fund recycling for every single cup thrown away in the UK. Last year the Liberal Democrats motioned a paper in parliament that proposed such a tax, to follow on from the success seen with carrier bags. This kind of model not only builds funds, it actively discourages the use of disposable stuff. (In July 2016 the government estimated the charge would result in six billion fewer plastic bags being used during the year and £29m had been raised).

What is pretty obvious to me is that with this sheer amount of packaging waste, with its complex material bill of materials, must be designed to factor in the end-of -life. Our current technical/marketing brief should stop thinking of the materials as having no value after they have fulfilled their original use (if it even considers it at all) and start to demand design for 2nd, 3rdand 4thlife. The fact that we can recycle paper fibres around six times in order to extract the maximum value (the same as plastic) shows us the potential and untapped value we are giving up too early just because we have designed something that does not consider the whole life. And to me that is just not good design anymore.

Thomas.Matthews business cards printed on ‘Coffee’ paper (mocha). The cups were collected by Simply Cups, reprocessed and made back into paperboy James Cropper’s Reclaimed Fibre Facility based in Cumbria, UK

This article first appeared in Creative Review, Issue 3, volume 37. March 2017
Photography by Peter Clarkson

 

 

Article archive 2017: Circular By Design

Reflecting on the quest for material infinity, and the massive changes and opportunities the circular economy offers to designers.

Look around you. Wherever you are there will be something that has been designed: beautiful things, functional things, frivolous things. What you can’t see is that behind all these things are intricate supply chains that criss-cross the globe, manufacturing sectors employing millions of people, complex processing systems assembling countless ingredients sourced from many continents.

When I became a designer I quickly discovered a stark truth: I was partly responsible for a rapid flow of materials and stuff that passes through our lives, and all too soon ends up on a waste pile. This realisation led me to investigate where many products end their lives. For the last ten years I have questioned our current state of take, make, then throw away. I have gone on shifts collecting household rubbish and dismantled computers, coats, high heel shoes, cars and even an oil rig.

Textiles featured in my investigation. A recent visit to a textile recycling facility revealed the magnitude of the problem. I saw piles of old clothing being dumped onto conveyors taking fabric to sorters to evaluate their worth. Bales stacked as tall as houses: men’s pleated trousers, sought after in Sub Saharan Africa; patterned jumpers esteemed in cold Eastern European climates; and worn-out t-shirts to be cut up for industrial wipes. Mixed up in this stream were other textiles: duvets, curtains and blankets, that have no secondary market, destined for an environmentally unsound end in landfill.

Witnessing this scene is dispiriting. It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start. Around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at concept stage. Let’s rewind to when these products were just a scribble in an entrepreneur’s notebook. Let’s go back to the brief: ‘Design a kettle that can boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds that retails at £12.99’, or, ‘Design an office that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. But imagine if the brief also instructed: ‘Design this product to have a second and third life’, ‘Design it so its raw materials may be fully recovered to their maximum value or so that no part of it will end up in landfill during the first five years of its life’. How would this affect the way we designed the product?

All too often, when designers consider materials or production methods, we jump to the finished product too quickly; we fail to consider its wider impact or future use. This new brief would present a big challenge. The very premise would need to change, to address a future where one product could easily become another. This would mean radically re-thinking everything: from the materials we specify, the product itself, its packaging, the logistics to retrieve it after use, and then to sort, process and make it into something usable again.

‘It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start.’

In a nutshell, this is the circular economy. It is an exciting proposition, letting the material flow drive the design and production method. It conceives of the product built from these materials as a ‘temporary state’; in other words, a product is always potentially on its way to being something else. Once redundant in one incarnation, it must be capable of being easily disassembled to go back to the raw material again and again, not in a degraded or down-cycled state, but in its most valuable form. Designing for a circular economy allows you to design for the optimal and longest life of a product; for re-use and fixability, recyclability or disassembly and recovery. It makes you match the potential lifespan of your product to appropriate materials and processes.

In the past, design has flirted with different methodologies and theories of sustainability, green design, eco-design, biomimicry, cradle to cradle, light-weighting. Designing with circular economy principles is based on systems thinking; it means designing the whole system, not just the products.

So designers are just one element of a circular economy. Even if they design a product that can be easily disassembled at the end of its life, with our current waste infrastructure, there is still a very high chance it will end up on a waste mountain. Achieving material infinity requires change on the part of everyone involved in the life of a product, from the suppliers of raw materials to the manufacturer, retailer, consumer and end-of-life disposal and recycling companies.

The scale of our waste problem, one for which we are all, in part responsible, should make us throw up our hands in despair. My shock, however, has subsided into curiosity. Where most see threadbare sheets or fading curtains, old electronics or forgotten fashion, I now see the fuel for our renewal.

This article first appeared in the publication for the launch of ‘Really’ by Kvadrat, May 2017.
https://reallycph.dk/circularity/circular-by-design